Results like those from this month’s primary cause detractors to call California’s four-year-old top-two election system the “jungle primary” because it often features races with a dozen or more contestants and outcomes that can be completely unpredictable.
For sure, that makes it a lot more fun both to vote and follow election returns – unless you are a prominent candidate or a boss of either major party.
Focus on just one statewide race for a solid picture of what the top-two system can do. This one came within a hair (and a recount might change things back) of absolutely assuring the Republican Party of one of California’s four leading political offices this fall, even though registered Democrats now outnumber Republicans by about 15 percent.
That race pitted two established, well-funded Democratic candidates against two Republicans, with one more Democrat and a Green Party hopeful also in the field. Not as many prospects as in some other races, but still plenty to scramble some establishment eggs.
The 10.9 percent of the Election Day vote count won by virtually unknown Democrat Tammy D. Blair and Green Laura Wells knocked down the counts of former Democratic Assembly Speaker John Perez and state Board of Equalization member Betty Yee. So, for much of election night, it appeared Republicans Ashley Swearengin, the mayor of Fresno, and David Evans, a CPA and former mayor of tiny California City, would meet this fall with no Democratic opposition.
In a state which has seen no statewide Republican officeholders for almost four years, that would have been remarkable.
But Perez edged out Evans by a mere 2,436 votes, a 21.7 percent performance, when all the counting was done on election night, and appeared headed for a runoff with Swearengin (who herself had just 24.4 percent), pending the count of thousands of provisional and damaged ballots, not to mention a potential recount. Since then, Perez and Yee have gone back and forth in the second spot, with Yee leading by a mere 708 votes as of Friday morning.
Under the previous party primary system, there would have been little remarkable in those numbers – Swearengin would have been the GOP nominee and the Democratic winner would still be in the balance, but for sure a Democrat and a Republican would have faced off in the fall.
If this kind of narrow race for an office whose occupant is the state’s chief check-writer doesn’t prove that every vote matters, it’s hard to see what could. Top two, then, will provide future motivation for two things: It will give voters more reason than ever to participate, and it will give parties reason to get organized well enough to avoid matchups between prominent party mates for the same office.
There was no such organization in either party this time. The result is that in district after district, races will pit people of the same parties in runoffs this fall. In runs for Congress alone, seven districts in all parts of the state will see Democrat vs. Democrat and Republican on Republican.
In some of those contests, incumbents ran up large primary majorities, but still must run again in the fall, suggesting top two should be tweaked to make winning 50 percent of the primary vote sufficient for election. If that were the case now, Gov. Jerry Brown would already have a second term. Similarly, incumbent members of Congress like Xavier Becerra, Tom McClintock, Adam Schiff, Lucille Roybal-Allard and Mike Thompson must contest again in November, despite far outdistancing all who ran against them this spring.
Such a modification to top-two voting would also see Rep. John Garamendi, a Democrat, returned to office to represent Solano County based on his 53.3 percent of the primary vote in a head-to-head contest with Republican Assemblyman Dan Logue. Assemblyman Jim Frazier, D-Oakley, would also be returned to office after having won his head-to-head primary with Republican Alex Henthorn of Vacaville.
More interesting will be the same-party race pitting Republicans Tony Strickland and Steve Knight in a district that stretches from Ventura County to the High Desert portion of Los Angeles County, and another matching first-term Democrat Eric Swallwell and state Senate majority leader Ellen Corbett in the East Bay suburbs of San Francisco. Silicon Valley gets a ballyhooed intraparty race between longtime incumbent Democrat Mike Honda and the well-funded Indian-American Ro Khanna. Members of the minority party in each of those districts can now decide the fall outcomes, exactly what top two intended.
This primary also debunked the notion that top two allows only major party candidates onto runoffs. Incumbents Schiff and Thompson both face independents.
It’s all different from after any previous California primary, with incumbents less secure than before, and voters with the power they sought when they created top two.
Thomas Elias is a California author. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.